Friday, April 4, 2014

The Creative Imagination -- by Michael Polanyi (PART 2)

In this second part of the essay Polanyi poses a question central to understanding the progression of scientific endeavor (see Part 1). On which grounds can we change the standards of coherence we use to judge our speculations/theorizing as real? “We are faced with the existentialist dilemma: how values of our own choosing can have authority over us who decreed them." The answer he suggests involves first a deliberate intent to go beyond what we know; this intent is part of what he calls imagination. This in turn may spark a spontaneous movement of intuition, which seeks a deeper coherence. The two work together to find and integrate clues leading to a more profound level of understanding. This occurs largely below awareness and encodes new standards of coherence that only become explicit afterwards. 

In the next post, we will present some of our personal reactions to Polanyi's exhilarating essay.

We begin to see how the scientist’s vision is formed. The imagination sallies forward, and intuition integrates what the imagination has lit upon. But a fundamental complication comes into sight here. I have acknowledged that the final sanction of discovery lies in the sight of a coherence which our intuition detects and accepts as real; but history suggests that there are no universal standards for assessing such coherence.

Copernicus criticized the Ptolemaic system for its incoherence in assuming other than steady circular planetary paths, and fought for the recognition of the heliocentric system as real because of its superior consistency. But his follower, Kepler, abandoned the postulate  of  circular  paths,  as causing  meaningless  complications  in the  Copernican  system,  and  boasted  that  by  doing  so  he  had cleansed  an Augean  stable  (Koestler,  1959, p. 334). Kepler based his first two laws on his vision  that geometrical  coherence  is the product  of  some mechanical interaction  (Koestler,  1959, p. 316), but this conception of reality underwent another radical transformation when Galileo, Descartes, and Newton  found ultimate reality in the smallest particles of matter obeying the mathematical laws of mechanics. (....)

It becomes necessary to ask, therefore, by what standards we can change the very standards of coherence on which our convictions rest. On what grounds can we change our grounds? We are faced with the existentialist dilemma: how values of our own choosing can have authority over us who decreed them.

We must look once more, then, at the mechanism by which imagination and intuition carry out their joint task.  We lift our arm and find that our imagination has issued a command which has evoked its implementation. But the moment feasibility is obstructed, a gap opens up between our faculties and the end at which we are aiming, and our imagination fixes on this gap and evokes attempts to reduce it. Such a quest can go on for years; it will be persistent, deliberative, and transitive; yet its whole purpose is directed at ourselves; it attempts to make us produce ideas. We say then that we are racking our brain or ransacking our brain; that we are cudgeling or cracking it, or beating our brain in trying to get it to work.

And the action induced in us by this ransacking is felt as something that is happening to us.  We say that we tumble to an idea; or that an idea crosses our mind; or that it comes into our head; or that it strikes us or dawns on us, or that it just presents itself to us. We are actually surprised and exclaim: Aha! when we suddenly do produce an idea. Ideas may indeed come to us unbidden, hours or even days after we have ceased to rack our brains.

Discovery is made therefore in two moves: one deliberate, the other spontaneous, the spontaneous move being evoked in ourselves by the action of our deliberate effort. The deliberate thrust is a focal act of the imagination, while the spontaneous response to it, which brings discovery, belongs to the same class as the spontaneous coordination of visual clues in response to our looking at something. This spontaneous act of discovery deserves to be recognized as creative intuition.

But where does this leave the creative imagination? It is there; it is not displaced by intuition but imbued with it. (....)

The imaginative effort can evoke its own implementation only because it follows intuitive intimations of its own feasibility (....)

The honors of creativity are due then in one part to the imagination, which imposes on intuition a feasible task, and, in the other part, to intuition, which rises to this task and reveals the discovery that the quest was due to bring forth. Intuition informs the imagination which, in its turn, releases the powers  of  intuition. (....)

When the quest has ended, imagination and intuition do not vanish from the scene. Our intuition recognizes our final result to be valid, and our imagination points to  the  inexhaustible  future manifestations of it. We return to the quiescent state of mind from which the inquiry started, but return to it with a new vision of coherence and reality. Herein lies the final acceptance of this vision; any new standards of coherence implied in it have become our own standards; we are committed to them. (....)

…[S]cientific discoveries are made in search of a reality--of a reality that is there, whether we know it or not. The search is of our own making, but the reality is not. We send out our imagination deliberately to ransack promising avenues, but the promise of these paths is already there to guide us; we sense it by our spontaneous intuitive powers. We induce the work of intuition but do not control its operations.

And since our intuition works on a subsidiary level, neither the clues which it uses nor the principles by which it integrates them are fully known. It is difficult to tell what were the clues which convinced Copernicus that his system was real. We have seen that his vision was fraught with implications so far beyond his own ken that, had they been shown to him, he would have rejected them. (....)

The solution of our problem is approaching here. (....) The deliberate aim of scientific inquiry is to solve a problem, but our intuition may respond to our efforts with a solution entailing new standards of coherence, new values. In affirming the solution we tacitly obey these new values and thus recognize their authority over ourselves, over us who tacitly conceived them.

This is indeed how new values are introduced, whether in science, or in the arts, or in human relations. They enter subsidiarily, embodied in creative action. Only after this can they be spelled out and professed in abstract terms, and this makes them appear to have been deliberately chosen, which is absurd. The actual grounds of a value, and its very meaning, will ever lie hidden in the commitment which originally bore witness to that value.

(….) The content of any empirical statement is three times indeterminate. It relies on clues which are largely unspecifiable, integrates them by principles which are undefinable, and speaks of a reality which is inexhaustible. Attempts to eliminate these indeterminancies of science merely replace science by a meaningless fiction. (....)

We should be glad to recognize that science has come into existence by mental endowments akin to those in which all hopes of excellence are rooted and that science rests ultimately on such intangible powers of our  mind.